Most of the 380 million metric tons of plastic created each year worldwide winds up in landfills or the natural environment. Despite California being one of the more successful states at recycling, San Francisco Bay isn’t spared. In 2016, samples taken from the Bay indicated it has more plastic pollution be weight than any other water body in the United States.
Compounding the issue, municipalities, including San Francisco, are scrambling to find ways to dispose of the limited amount of plastic that does get recycled. Earlier this year, China, once the biggest importer of recycled plastic from America, jolted the waste collection industry by halting imports of bales that contained more than one percent of impurities; non-plastic elements that survive the recycling process and lower plastic quality. In effect, China’s policy serves as a ban on plastic imports. Recology, which handles San Francisco’s garbage, and has been shipping to China for decades, is only able to reach four to five percent impurities, considered high quality compared with much of the world.
Plastic bales at Recology’s Pier 96 location have been backing up, the company reports, particularly since China’s ban went into effect the same time trash flow increased over the holidays. According to the refuse company, “it would be inaccurate to characterize this as storage. It is short-term staging, and the stack is getting smaller daily as we move material.”
Some of the bales are being sold to other Southeast Asia and U.S. locations. However, with the largest buyer out of the market, supply is building and prices are dropping. Recology admitted that transportation costs to ship to other countries can be higher, expenditures that eventually will be passed on to residents and businesses. Recology declined to provide specific data on how much its recycling revenue has declined, or associated costs increased.
According to Doug Woodring, founder of the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), an initiative which helps businesses and governments measure their use and waste, his organization has been swamped with requests for such analysis since the Chinese ban went into effect. He suspects most municipalities will either be forced to stop collecting plastic, stockpile it or landfill it. “The rest of the world will not be able to take the volumes China would take,” he said.
Vietnam’s National Assembly is debating tightening its plastic intake, an action Woodring, who has offices in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, believes other Southeast Asia countries are considering. Nonetheless, he sees a silver lining in the ban. “It’s the biggest land-based tsunami the world has seen,” he stated. “And it’s great, as it forces change and much needed new thought on this issue, and innovation.”
Woodring would like to see legal standards governing the types and colors of plastic manufactured; current diversity hinders automated recycling efforts. Soda bottles, detergent containers, egg cartons and plastic bags rely on different types of plastic, which have to be separated from each other. Bottle caps even use dissimilar plastic than the bottles they come with. According to Woodring, plastic recycling is akin to taking an omelet after someone has eaten it and trying to put the egg, cheese and mushrooms back together. “It’s that complicated. There is some high-tech machinery, but 99 percent of the world doesn’t have it.”
On an average day, Recology receives between 600 to 650 tons of co-mingled recycling that has to be sorted, three to five percent of which are plastics. The company is investing $3 million this year to improve its sorting technology. In 2016, it completed an $11.6 million upgrade to its 200,000-square foot Pier 96 plant, adding four high-speed optical scanners to automatically sort plastics and produce higher quality cardboard bales. China’s one percent impurity rule applies to other recycling imports as well. Although paper shipments to that country have been halted, Recology is still able to ship cardboard to China.
“Because recycling markets are competitive and changing we are going to decline to state exactly where we are sending bales of recycled paper and bales of recycled plastic to, but we can confirm end locations do include facilities in the U.S. and in different countries in Southeast Asia,” stated a Recology spokesperson.
Recology wants its customers to be more attentive. It encourages the public to refuse single-use plastics, such as cups, straws, coffee cup lids, bags and water bottles, and to carry reusable glass, canvas and metal containers as a means to remove plastic vessels from the waste stream. Composting also helps recycling efficiency, by keeping food scraps and soiled paper out of bins. According to the company, the dryer the recycling, the easier it is to protect against impurities, which “helps San Francisco continue to sell its recycling when economies dip and manufacturers who buy bales of recyclables are choosier.”
In the meantime, plastic manufacturing continues to boom. In 1950, the world was producing two million metric tons. By 1999, the number climbed to 200 million; in 2015 it reached 380 million, according to a joint study released last year by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Georgia.
“We realized it would be really interesting to account for all plastics humankind has ever made,” said Roland Geyer, a UCSB professor and lead study author. “We wanted to look at plastic production data all the way through its lifecycle to the end.” The report discovered 8.3 billion metric tons was produced from 1950 to 2015, and that 6.3 billion had already become waste. Of that waste, nine percent was recycled, 12 percent incinerated. The remaining is on land and in oceans.
In terms of humanmade manufactured materials, plastic in weight ranks just behind concrete and steel, ahead of paper and aluminum. But while concrete and steel are largely used in infrastructure, plastic is widely disposed of. “Without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics,” said Geyer, “humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.” He added that, while the study took an objective look at the numbers, his personal opinion is that recycling and incineration alone aren’t going to solve the proliferation of plastic waste, and that use reduction is needed.
Packaging, accounting for 42 percent of plastic usage, is driving much of the manufacturing. A 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation determined that 95 percent of plastic packaging lost its value after one use, and only 14 percent of that is recycled. At current rates, by 2050 the report claims the weight of plastic in the ocean will be greater than the weight of all the fish.
Other growing plastic usages include synthetic fibers, which can be found in backpacks, carseats, carpets, clothing, and microbeads, which are in toothpaste and facial products. “They are so small you don’t really realize they are there,” said Woodring. “They just go straight down the drain. There is no municipal system in the world that can capture these microplastics.” The same applies to microfibers in clothing that sheds in the washing machine.
Larger plastic pieces tend to breakdown into micro-pieces in the water, but don’t degrade. Woodring, who founded the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit umbrella under which PDP operates, explained that toxins can get attached to microplastics, which eventually are swallowed by fish, and wind up on our dinner table.
According to a 2016 study by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and 5 Gyres, a nonprofit battling plastic pollution, 3.9 million pieces of plastic enter San Francisco Bay daily from eight sewage treatment plants. That same report found that the southern part of the Bay had one million pieces of microplastic per square kilometer, six times higher than Chesapeake Bay and nine times greater than Lake Erie, the next two highest recorded U.S. water bodies. The northern part of the Bay, which feeds into the ocean and thus disperses more rapidly, had 300,000 pieces per kilometer.
The two nonprofits are in the middle of a two-year study assessing wastewater and storm water runoff, as well as testing outside the Golden Gate Bridge and adjacent ocean areas. “We are really looking at how this stuff gets into the Bay,” explained Carolynn Box, science programs director for 5 Gyres.
At least two local small businesses are working to develop alternatives to heavy plastic use. Go Box offers the country’s only reusable container takeout service. It began enlisting food trucks in Portland, Oregon in 2011. Three years later, a San Francisco effort was launched, using Dogpatch as a testing ground. San Francisco founder Paul Liotsakis formerly worked at the American Industrial Center on Third Street, where he noticed trash bins after lunch would be overflowing with containers. When the City implemented composting, he thought it’d solve the problem; instead people were confused about what went where. The bins remained full.
While Go Box was successful in downtown Portland working with street vendors and signing up individual patrons, Liotsakis found that San Francisco didn’t have a sufficient concentration of food trucks to replicate that model. He approached City government and corporations instead. For a fee, a group or individual can sign up with Go Box, download an app, and choose from a list of participating vendors who provide the container, which, after use, the customer disposes of at drop sites monitored by Go Box. “If a company wants to offer a green perk to their employees, we put a drop box at their location and service the drop site once a week,” Liotsakis explained. “It reduces trash entering the building from disposables.”
Four municipalities have enrolled so far: San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Rafael and Oakland. The cities partner with participating vendors to offer discounts to customers. Vendors, saving on containers, also provide food markdowns.“Changing behavior is always a challenge, but what will be interesting coming up is that cities are looking to do something more to reduce disposables. They are not meeting their zero waste goals,” said Liotsakis. “Why shouldn’t reuse be treated the same way as recycling and hauling?”
Dogpatch-based Steelys Drinkware has been wholesaling reusable stainless-steel cups and bottles to festivals, corporate events and catering services since 2010. One patron is the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee; Steelys owner John Borg said the cups and associated free water refill stations provided at the festival have diverted more than two million disposable plastic cups over the past four years. For Outside Lands last year, Steelys produced 4,000 water bottles and 600 reusable wine cups, the latter selling out halfway through the first day. Water stations at Outside Lands poured 142,092 liters over three days, the equivalent of 284,184 16-ounce cups otherwise lining the trash. Steelys has also been incorporated into music tours by Jack Johnson, Phish and Dave Matthews.
Borg’s original background was in marketing, where he said he used to produce a “lot of swag.” In 2006, he founded Eco Imprints, which makes environmentally-friendly merchandise and apparel. The impetus to start Steelys came from his health concerns about plastic. “If you and I were to get tested we would have plastic in our bodies,” he said. “Plastic is super cheap, super efficient. It is a terrific material, but it has consequences long term.”